Chinese, Russian and Ethiopian restaurants have been reviewed by me on another site that I write for, The Trainee Chef. More to come from this new venture!
Named after one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, a place prospering from trade routes between China and the Mediterranean, it was fitting that a group consisting of an Indian, two Pakistanis, a Korean, a Brit and a Spaniard sat down to try one of London’s recommended Central Asian restaurants.
The silk route has influenced the cuisine at Samarqand to the extent that the food was certainly not exclusively Russian. In fact, our waiter denied any Turkik influences (though they were obvious from the meat grills) and said the food was decidedly Uzbek.
Determined to try the food on offer, regardless of what it was technically, and assured that it was broadly to our remit, we ordered a bottle of vodka. Yes, we should have perhaps started with food, but the decor demanded that we deep dive into the culture as swiftly as possible. The decor in question was not the life-sized horse lamp in the middle of the restaurant, but rather the wall sized projection of Russian MTV videos. I don’t know if you’ve seen them before, but they are every bit as outrageous as you’d imagine – slutty FBI style interrogations with choreographed prison break (dance); playboy chauvinist diving into pool full of women (the water was replaced by writhing naked bodies painted blue)… With the option of a private Karaoke room, this evening needed some suitable preparation!
After our first bottle, complimented by a delicious home-made cranberry-rasberry juice blend called Mors to cut through any after effects of ice cold Stolichnaya, we proceeded to inspect the menu. Being Central Asian cuisine, there were dishes of some familiarity to this intrepid and multi-cultural group, but we listened to our waiter and welcomed his recommendations. The Olivier salad might be better known as a Russian salad, and was a light and sweet potato, egg and chicken mixture, Soleniya was a refreshing mix of pickles (perfect with vodka), and the Aubergine “caviar” was a salad of roasted peppers, courgette and tomato. Lamb cheburek was similar to the Turkish borek, and the Kachapuri was – though the name implies an Indian puri – similar to a pizza. Both were excellent meaty pastries to start with.
Aside from the Vodka, we were keen to avoid “traditional” Russian exports such as Caviar, Blinis and such. And instead shared an excellently prepared mixed grill Shashlik of lamb and chicken koftas, chops and wings – all succulent and tasty; Manty, steamed large stuffed dumplings, were reminiscent of Turkish Manti, or Italian ravioli, and were a fine accompaniment to the meat feast (though a little doughy); and a traditional Samarqand Plov – a dish of rice, tomato and roasted garlic – which was brought out at the end, to finish us off.
Why “a dangerous place”? Well, living up to its history, Samarkand had variously been conquered and ruled over by Alexander The Great, Genghis Khan, Tamurlane and more recently the USSR… it was with similar satisfaction (and sense of defeat) that our evening was cut short by the 4th bottle of vodka. No details need be shared, but the evening will go down in our own personal history as the stuff of legend.
This review should be about the food, I know. And it’s fair to say that every one of our party of 6 were pleasantly surprised by the food. None of us had had much experience with Russian (or Uzbek, or “Central Asian”) foods as such, and had in fairness been dreading the experience. The closest I’d personally come to trying it had been horse meat stew on the Mongolian / Russian border… and wasn’t something I wanted to repeat. But what was presented to us by the charming staff at Samarqand was homely, hearty and thoroughly enjoyed. And that includes the Vodka!